Opinion & Analysis

Kiwi nurse on TB frontlines in Philippines

In the middle of the hustle and bustle of Manila, its largest district, Tondo, continues to struggle with a deadly disease that is considered treatable and manageable in many parts of the world. New Zealand Herald journalist Nicholas Jones and photojournalist Mike Scott travelled to the Philippines to investigate this story, speaking to a Kiwi nurse who moved to the Philippines to join the fight combating this deadly disease. Jones and Scott were assisted to travel to the Philippines with a Foundation Media Travel Grant.
A montage of three photos showing Nicholas Jones taking photos in the streets of Todo, the philippines

Photographer Mike Scott documented the alleys of Tondo, where poverty and tuberculosis are rife

My connection to the Philippines stretches back to 2012 when I spent a month as an intern at the Philippine Star newspaper, based in Manila, an incredible opportunity sponsored and arranged through the Asia New Zealand Foundation. The experience and enabled me to travel to various parts of the country including the southern Mindanao region.

I fell in love with the country and the people and in the following decade watched as the links between the Philippines and New Zealand grew and grew, to the point where Filipinos now comprise the third-largest Asian population in Aotearoa New Zealand.

When I heard about a New Zealander involved in ground-breaking public health work in Manila, I turned to the Foundation again, this time for a Media Travel Grant that enabled myself and visual journalist Mike Scott to travel to Manila to meet her and see her work first-hand.

Jessa Pontevedra sitting with and talking to a family in a small shack

Doctors Without Borders medical coordinator Jessa Pontevedra (top centre) giving tuberculosis advice to a family in Tondo

Jessa Pontevedra is medical coordinator for an ambitious Doctors Without Borders programme combating tuberculosis (TB) in the slum areas of the Tondo district.

The disease claims 70 lives a day in the Philippines and is resurgent after the disruption of Covid; lockdowns and restrictions in the Philippines were some of the longest in the world.

We were able to follow the Doctors Without Borders team as they held free screening events and accompanied Jessa and her team as they wound through the slum areas to check on patients who were on a course of drugs to treat or prevent the disease.

Seeing the living conditions in these areas was confronting - every spare centimetre was claimed; the alleyways between the two-storey shacks were barely shoulder-width, and there was no clean water or sanitation.

Visiting Tondo with Doctors Without Borders opened doors to the community

It was also an immense privilege to be welcomed into these communities and homes; a privilege afforded to us because we were with the Doctors Without Borders team, who had built trust and respect with residents over many months.

Another story we were in the city to tell was that of the sacrifices made by Filipinos looking to migrate to New Zealand.

In Auckland, we met a Filipino healthcare assistant, Christine, who was working long hours in an effort to gain permanent residency. Only when that is achieved will she bring over her 11-year-old son, who in the meantime lives with her parents in the Philippines.

On our last Sunday in the Philippines, we met Christine's welcoming family, at their home in a middle-class area of Tondo (not all areas were like the slums we had spent the week in).

Christine’s son told us of the pain of being apart from her for the first time in his life, but that he knew she was doing it for his future.

Afterwards we emerged into the alley by their home, adorned with lush pot plants and ringing with the sound of laughing children as they ran to a nearby basketball court. Families walked happily by in groups on their way to the local church. Later, Christine’s family would eat together at the lively Ugbo street markets.

This scene brought home how alien, lonely and quiet suburban Auckland - which I missed while in Manila - must feel to new migrants.

Jessa Pontevedra greeting a child as she walks down a narrow alley in Todo

The narrow alleys and poor sanitary conditions of Tondo's slum quarters make inhabitants more susceptible to outbreaks of TB

In another example of separation, our story about Christine has been delayed until later in 2024, because she subsequently made an emergency trip home after the death of her grandmother.

That night we had dinner in the upmarket, trendy Makati area of the city - a jarring contrast to Tondo’s slums - with an old friend I made during my internship over a decade earlier.

I felt so lucky to be able to continue such friendships and strengthen my bond with the Philippines - something that began and continues because of the Foundation.

It was Mike’s first visit and after our work was done he journeyed north to spend some time surfing.

He now has the Philippines bug too and plans to return and travel the country with his family.

We both want to thank the Foundation for its support, without which our reporting would not have been possible.

The Foundation's media programme helps New Zealand journalists cover stories that shed light on Asia and on New Zealand’s ties to the region. We support journalists to build their knowledge of Asia by providing media travel grants, internships in Asian newsrooms and fellowships for senior journalists.

Our media travel grants provide New Zealand journalists with funding to travel independently to Asia to research and prepare stories – to help demystify Asia for New Zealand audiences.